Dicey Tillerman, the novel's protagonist, becomes a mother to her younger siblings at the age of thirteen when Momma abandons her children in a parking lot. Dicey is accustomed to adult responsibility, however. For as long as Dicey can remember, Momma struggled with the responsibility of raising her children, and Dicey learned early to be strong and resourceful. Dicey loves her mother intensely despite her shortcomings, and, as her peers tease Dicey because their mother is poor and unmarried, Dicey learns early to fight viciously and to avoid contact with others. Dicey begins the novel as a tough loner, unwilling to trust or rely upon others. The only people with whom Dicey opens up are her family members, whom she loves dearly and defends ferociously. Even with her siblings, however, she finds herself fabricating lies to protect them from truths she thinks are too much to bear. In fact, Dicey is so determined and proud, that she hides her own emotions from herself. When Momma leaves, Dicey refuses to linger on the implications of their abandonment and instead focuses intently on the goal of traveling with her brothers and sister to Bridgeport. She accepts the truth of Momma's mental health and breakdown because she must, but she does not linger on it, examine it, or react to it, except for one night of tears with her siblings. Even while pragmatically and brusquely facing the truth, Dicey stubbornly clings to her devotion to her mother. Throughout the novel, Dicey is driven by her determination to survive, to keep her family together, and to find them a place where they can "stay and be." She grows in her understanding of her family's importance and identity and of life's transience and impermanence, but she deals only superficially with her emotions about her mother. These emotions form the thematic material of the book's sequel, Dicey's Song.